I've had nightmares thinking what we used to do.
A frank admission from James Muscat, Group Commercial Finance and FP&A Director at Ten Lifestyle Group, as he describes how his organization has executed its digital finance transformation initiative with Planful.
Headquartered in the UK, Ten has around 1300 employees globally, across 22 offices around the world and a client base that includes the likes of Morgan Stanley, HSBC, American Express MasterCard and Coutts. It’s a concierge services provider, says Muscat:
We work with some of the world's leading banks, private banks, premium financial services, and luxury brands to basically help them attract, acquire, engage and retain their their high net worth customers, their top sort of five percent.
How is that achieved? It’s about making people happy. Muscat explains:
We've invested a lot of money in a digital platform over the last couple of years. We're one of the only providers out there that has a transactional platform. We basically book travel dining, entertainment, retail experiences and create content.
Because we've got a closed user group of around 2 million plus of high net worth and ultra high net worth, we've curated our own global hotel collection. We get exclusive benefits from those. It could be early check in, late check out, credit in resort, guaranteed upgrades, that sort of thing. We can basically do anything - charter jets, yachts, help you create those bespoke holidays and make it a bit more personal. If you travel, we've got held tables at some of the best restaurants around the world. So, if you just turn up on a Saturday night, we can get you into quite a few cool places, which you wouldn't typically be able to.
To support all this, the Finance function at the company needed to undergo some changes, including a goal of, as Muscat puts it, getting out of ‘Excel City’:
Before our digital finance transformation, we didn't really have an FP&A [Financial Planning and Analysis] team. It was a small company, we didn't have a huge finance team, but we were starting to see the value in building out a proper FP&A function.
The company also brought on board a finance IT systems manager, a development that was critical to transformation success, argues Muscat:
This was very important because it sort of glued everything together. You need that person who's got a bit of a finance head and a tech head as well, because there's so many things that will just go over my head today. You need to have these people with those skill sets.
Challenges facing Ten included understanding the segregation of duties to make sure that what was needed across the organization to support business partners was in place, as well as dealing with fragile and complex models and reporting and forecasting coming from multiple sources of truth:
Building your management accounts, you've got different files splitting out your costs, your revenues, your consolidation, your forecast, lots of really complex formulas and links, FX rates in every file. You'd basically get to a point where you were adjusting throughout all these documents and you get a little bit lost. Then obviously, with the management accounts themselves, you create all these wizzy formulas, and then whenever you had to change anything, it was a nightmare to unpick it.
This was in some respects an opportunity for radical change, he adds:
We thought, 'Look nobody knows how to use our accounting system because there was so much turnover the last couple of years'. We thought we'd really hit a hard reset. We brought in Microsoft's Business Central, and all the SharePoint frills that come with it. We were able to put in our standard operating procedures and organize ourselves a little bit better on SharePoint. We also introduced Power BI, just because it easily links into Microsoft Business Central.
The organization also implemented three Planful modules - consolidation, reporting and data planning. Muscat says:
In terms of consolidation, that used to be one big, big, scary Excel with plenty of entities, different currencies. Now we've got one source of truth for effects or the calculations are done in the consolidation. All our eliminations are sorted out through dynamic journals...We've got no human interaction whatsoever. When it comes to the consolidation, we just click the button and it's done, apart from when we're adding in any sort of standard journals, to help manage the month end, and re-classification journals.
One of the biggest game changes in consolidations is the report collections that actually come out of it. Now we've got a really clear audit trail that brings you everything in local currency, brings out your FX and puts it into consolidated currency. It just looks a lot cleaner and doesn't break like it used to. That's something very easy to provide to the auditors, so there's a lot of value in doing that.
For reporting, there’s a need to categorize different ‘dimensions’. Muscat explains:
We have cost centers which reflect our teams, departments and markets. We split corporate clients into different banking products as well. We also have offices [as a category] because in some cases, in one ledger, we might have several offices. For example, we've got offices all around the US that feed into one ledger. Recently, we've brought in supply as well, just so we can do supply level forecasting and reporting.
The Group has been able to utilize these rows sets and column sets for advantage, says Muscat:
Obviously, during the last couple of years we've been very cost conscious. Now that we've got the supplier dimension in place, we can actually hold our departments to account. We can actually see spend by supplier and tell people they're wrong when they say otherwise. It just keeps us on top of costs by department. Very quickly, you can look at certain levels of software by headcount as well, just as a benchmarking exercise. We use these for various projects and ad hoc questions. We moved to hybrid working, so we saw a big reduction in our office spend, and we did obviously set targets. But at the same time, in some markets, we've had to sort of ramp that up, just depending on the appetite for being in the office.
The firm’s forecasting capabilities have also been improved, he adds:
We can really easily validate forecasts and be able to challenge them on on a department-by-department basis….In the UK, because of a couple of political mess ups, [it's] resulted in Sterling depreciating quite heavily. What that means is it caused a bit of turmoil, Sterling's been going up and down, up and down. We really wanted to figure out a way that we can strip out the impact of foreign exchange on the business. So we've actually created reports where we take the actuals today, and then re-translate our forecast scenarios at today's rates, so then we can we can see the underlying performance.
Changing role of Finance
Muscat argues that Finance is now a strategic partner within the business, rather than the support function it was perceived to be five years ago:
It was more about crunching invoices. We weren't loved as much as we are today. But we are now getting involved with a lot more things. With that comes complexities on headcount and whatnot, but the good news is that we always have an answer, and we have it quickly and more accurately than we did before.
As well as having less reliance on “the pitfalls of Excel”, there have been clear benefits from the digital transformation program, he adds:
Throughout the finance transformation, we looked at all the blockers, that were causing us to suffer from a 10-to-15 working day month end. We've now got that nailed down to five. It probably took a year to really get there, but it means that we've opened up a lot more time to analyze and partner more with business. We've got a lot of power of bringing in those non-financial data points as well, like the number of requests by client, active members, number of members or number of cards, all that sort of thing. We can very easily create that sort of bespoke reporting for different stakeholders. From a forecasting perspective, we've got revenue calculations in the system. Workforce planning, we've virtually got that down to a tee. With all the complexities that come with operating out of so many locations, we can really rely on that forecast, more than we ever could.
We've seen a huge amount of time saved, a lot less errors...we've got better decision-making, a lot more accountability. We can quickly create new reports and don't have to necessarily maintain all the links like we did in Excel. And there's a lot more trust [from the business] - people are coming to us more, asking us more questions, and actually believing what we're saying.
In terms of lessons learned along the way, Ten’s engagement with Planful has been underway for 18 months now. Muscat has some clear advice based on the firm's experience to date:
There's so many things you can do in [Planful]. You don't have to do everything at once. You know, between the forecasts and whatever's going on in the business, we try and spend a bit of downtime researching, looking at the online guidance or the new releases that come out…We did a bit of a 'big bang' at the beginning. If you're not used to using a reporting tool, you'll have to obviously change your heads to think, 'How do we use the system?'.
I'd say it probably took us about eight months until we reached our real peak and really understood some of the things that we didn't do before. When you've got an implementation going on, you just focus on getting the bread and butter done. But as you get a bit more time and you play with the system more, you then realize how much more functionality there is to play with and more problems that you can solve.
But this goes back to my point - you don't have to do everything at once. Obviously have those key deliverables at the beginning, but you will forever be finding more things to do